It's still alive
In the two hundred years since Mary Shelley brought it to life, the name Frankenstein has become synonymous with ethically questionable creations, scientific hubris, and the mother (or perhaps father) of all transgressions: messing with human life. It’s part of our mythology, the story we call up when the boundaries between human and nonhuman come into question. As we watch the natural blur into the unnatural through scientific progress, as we are forced again and again to reexamine our own beliefs, cyborgs and robots and artificial intelligence and cloning all resonate when considering the legacy of Shelley’s proposition that we need to think before we act, that science has an ineluctable relationship to ethics.
But Frankenstein isn’t just a cautionary tale about the dangers of invention. It’s also a story about bad parenting and what goes wrong when you don’t offer love and a proper education to your offspring. In 2018, the story is more relevant than ever: a guy with an unchecked ego goes a little too far, ignores the consequences of his actions, refuses to accept responsibility for what he’s created, then makes disastrous decisions that destroy everything around him. Shelley understood one of the great ironies of our time: that we make our own monsters, and that we usually have only ourselves—and maybe reality TV these days—to blame for the mess.
Many iterations have appeared over the years: The Frankenstein Film Sourcebook claims there have been upward of two hundred films based on the unscrupulous scientist Victor Frankenstein and his mangled scientific experiment; indeed, re-creating life and reanimating the dead constitute one of three core narratives in the horror genre (vampires and zombie invasion holding the other two spots). The visual imagination of German expressionist filmmaking and early horror films such as Metropolis, Nosferatu, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are all progenies of the Frankenfilm genre, whose dramatic lighting, looming shadows, and frightening world-building gave later directors like Hitchcock and Orson Welles an ominous palette with which to create.
This year Penguin Classics is celebrating the bicentennial of Frankenstein by releasing it in its original 1818 text, along with an introduction to the 1831 version in which Shelley addresses how such a young girl—she was nineteen at the time—came upon “so very hideous an idea.” The child of radical nineteenth-century thinkers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Shelley began writing the novel one weekend while holed up in a Swiss villa with Lord Byron and Shelley’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. After multiple readings of her mother’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which urges parents to broaden the education of their daughters, Shelley was moved to spin her own tale about an egotistical deadbeat dad who puts all his energy into creating a son, only to abandon him when he turns out to be a bit of a rogue with anger issues and a thing for vengeance.
Like a Stephen King horror series, the Gothic novel is a forever home for journeys of self-revelation and rebellion against authority. And like many great Gothic novels, Frankenstein stacks the fear of the unknown—what is Victor’s creation capable of and how will it rebel against him?—right up against profound ethical and epistemological questions. What is a monster? Is the monster Victor or his creation? In Shelley’s eyes, the scientist-creator bears much of the onus: after all, it is his lack of forethought and of compassion for his handiwork that sends the monster into a black hole of destructive despair. He just wants to be loved, would probably settle for being liked or even tolerated, but is ultimately rejected by everyone. He’s a patchwork of body parts, a pastiche of a man who has learned to speak and read literature; even so, his efforts to be part of society aren’t enough to displace the disgust people feel for him. (A vain and judgmental bunch, those Romantics.) The creature’s status as an outcast makes us feel more sympathy than horror; in many ways he seems more human than inhuman, and perhaps we love the Frankenstein narrative because it reminds us that we, too, contain monstrosities.
Today, when we are awash in technological advances and their attendant bioethical concerns—gene editing, biohacking, job-stealing robots—and “reckless scientist overrun by his creation” is a trope to which we’re well accustomed, we might find more nuance in Shelley’s Frankenstein by reading it as a parable about the lethal nature of denial. Victor, after all, has begotten the creature through his own need to play God, his lust for power, but then abandons him and denies his culpability. In her poem “Speeches for Dr. Frankenstein,” Margaret Atwood lands on a more precise accusation, giving voice to the creature: “you dangle on the leash of your own longing; / Your need grows teeth // … I prowl. // I will not come when you call.”
In the spirit of reaping what we sow, the latest incarnation of Frankenstein has shown up in the rubble and mayhem of war-torn Iraq. Ahmed Saadawi sets his urgent and entertaining horror fantasy novel Frankenstein in Baghdad in 2005—after the American invasion—amid exploding trucks, shattered buildings, and human remains. In this terrain, sectarian violence rules and corpse fragments abound, which makes the absurd notion of piecing together body parts, as Victor Frankenstein did two centuries ago, seem much less absurd. A scavenger and antiques dealer by trade, Hadi al-Attag finds a human nose in the debris and adds it to the mélange of body parts he has been piecing into a complete corpse, ostensibly to give it—them—a proper burial. In true monster fashion, the composite corpse comes to life when the soul of a dead security guard inhabits it and sets out for revenge. (The creature’s makeup of both criminal and innocent victim gives it a pleasing nonbinary edge.)
Saadawi’s Frankenstein, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction but wasn’t published in English until this year. What he’s assembled is part magical realism and part science fiction, coupled with a whole bunch of the horrific, never-ending violence endemic to the aftermath of US-occupied Iraq. Saadawi, also a poet, screenwriter, and filmmaker, finds in Shelley’s narrative a brilliant metaphor for senseless violence in all its gravity and ubiquity, with responsibility and justice dimly lit in the background. While Shelley’s creature has a taste for reading Milton, Saadawi’s—called “Whatsitsname”—is more interested in justice than in the literary canon. Loss of faith and spiritual ruin reign here, as they do in Shelley’s world, but as the creature vows revenge, it becomes clear that he, along with the novel’s colorful cast of other characters, is also a victim of war. While initially he directs his vengeance at the makers of the bombs that have torn Baghdad apart, Whatsitsname eventually moves on to killing indiscriminately. When violence and death are everywhere, it’s difficult to distinguish the sowing from the reaping. War has a tendency to blur those lines. In all his monstrosity, Saadawi’s monster embodies the grief, blindness, and chaos that the madmen around him have created.
In the same way that a killer could be constructed from human debris, the cycle of violence that has become reality in Iraq seems to have no end, no logic, no reason. Packed with revolutionary and counter-revolutionary ideas and complicated social and political situations, both the first chapter in the Frankenstein story and the latest of its brood both take on moral ambiguities and highlight the consequences of unchecked power. In the end, monster or no monster, you’re left with tragedy.
Articulate words flooding out
Let’s call Marcel Schwob (1867–1905) the Mallarmé of short fiction. The analogy, though imperfect, is useful, as it locates Schwob in the fin-de-siècle French symbolist milieu, where he attended Mallarmé’s Tuesday-night salons. Like Mallarmé, Schwob was a modernist innovator disguised as a backward-looking traditionalist; for Schwob, in fact, “writing well” entailed a refusal to believe in originality, and he ransacked the Bibliothèque nationale for historical, archaeological, and anthropological materials from which to spin his yarns. He thought nothing of silently slipping entire passages from those sources into his fiction, whose bricolage distinguishes him from Mallarmé even as it forces on us an ugly locution like proto-postmodern to indicate how radically new his attitude toward composition was.
While Schwob’s posthumous reputation in France was amplified by surrealists like Breton and Ernst, who appreciated the uncanny worlds conjured by his tales, his influence in English has largely manifested via South American adherents like Borges and Bolaño, and more recently César Aira. Like Borges’s Ficciones (1944), Schwob’s The King in the Golden Mask (1892), recently published in a new translation by Kit Schluter, presents a series of worlds much like our own, actual places and historical events made disquieting by way of ontological uncertainty. The story “The Embalming Women,” for example, begins at “the Libyan border of Ethiopia”—a geography traceable to Herodotus’s fifth-century BCE—and establishes that the narrator believes in magic, without satisfying the question of whether his brother was murdered by succubus-like enchantment, as he maintains, or whether he fell victim to a “pestilential wind.”
Throughout The King in the Golden Mask, we are given to wonder whether this or that world is one of mere superstition and brutality or one of genuine monsters and sorcery. Some stories, like “The Sleeping City,” rely openly on the supernatural, and some, like “The Plague,” are cruel but plausible, but the majority dwell in an uncertain zone where anything might happen. That we never remain in a period or place for more than one story abets this uncertainty. (The idea of so disparate a collection was controversial enough for Schwob to write a preface defending its lack of Aristotelian unities, speaking in the character of an extraterrestrial to whom the distinctions between the prehistoric Ice age, Fourteenth-century Florence, and contemporary France are comparatively trivial.)
The story most relevant to our cultural moment is perhaps “The Talking Machine,” whose titular monstrosity is a delightfully steampunk analog contraption grotesquely miming human anatomy:
Rising to the ceiling was a giant throat, distended and patchy, with hanging flaps of black swelling leather, the breath of a subterranean storm, and two enormous lips trembling on top. And amid the grinding of its wheels and the screeching of its metal cables, these heaps of leather shook, and its gigantic lips hesitantly parted; then, at the red bottom of the pit which opened below, an immense fleshy lobe jolted, stood on end, wriggled around, struggled up and down, left and right; a gust of wind exploded inside the machine, and articulate words began flooding out, spurred on by a superhuman voice.
This contraption is powered by “a meager looking woman” at a keyboard, performing at the behest of a mad inventor who claims to be able to “produce all at once, and without damnation intervening, the thesis and antithesis of the truths of man and his God.” Such open blasphemy will not, of course, go unpunished; the apparatus of bellows, cables, and pedals produces “a monstrous stammer: WO-RD WO-RD WO-RD” and promptly explodes, leaving the narrator “no way of knowing if the machine itself was refusing to blaspheme, or if the performer of speech had introduced into the mechanism a principle of destruction.” That the inventor loses his ability to speak in the wake of the accident suggests a supernatural twist to the proceedings, but, again, we are given no definitive answer among the various possible causes for the machine’s destruction.
Discerning news readers may recall alarmed reports of an artificial-intelligence experiment run by Facebook last summer, in which two chatbots named Bob and Alice began to negotiate using their own invented shorthand:
Bob: i can i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me
According to many sources, researchers quickly shut down the experiment because they couldn’t translate the bots’ shorthand into intelligible English. The visions of takeover by future robot overlords turned out to be overblown, based on a spat on the subject of AI between present human overlords Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, but, as the BBC opined, “the way the story has been reported says more about cultural fears and representations of machines than it does about the facts of this particular case.” (Indeed, while the actual experiment seems to have been confined to computer screens, some articles reporting it used ominous images of humanoid robots, as though intelligence necessarily implied physical form.)
The monster linking “The Talking Machine” with the media flap over Facebook’s AI experiment is, ultimately, the metaphysical monster of “playing god.” In Schwob’s story, the blaspheming inventor is issued a sort of cosmic rebuke in the form of muteness; the contemporary debate about artificial intelligence raises the specter of humanity being displaced, or even destroyed, by our own creation of a world where everything—from our clothes to our homes to our weapons of mass destruction—is online. That Schwob seems attuned to such a modern fear in a book dominated by his research into remote antiquity says as much about the peculiar power of his imagination in breathing life into his recondite source materials as it does about the backward-looking traditionalism of our innovative follies.
Autobiography of a gaze
The first time I read Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, I forced myself not to google photos of the author. By the time I finished the book, my overarching feeling was guilt: for having ever considered my own face ugly, and for still, in spite of what I had just read, wanting to see the titular face. And why? Was it the hope it that it wouldn’t be so bad, that Grealy had somehow been exaggerating? Or was it the hope that, awful as it was, her face would seem somehow bearable?
I didn’t look. Not at photos, at least. I watched Grealy through the text. The book is, as the title suggests, the story of her face, from the initial onset of cancer in her jaw, in the 1960s, and a first surgery to remove it, through all of the subsequent surgeries to try to make it look normal again. (“No scare quotes on the word; a norm is a norm even if it isn’t a virtue,” as Adam Gopnik recently wrote in the New Yorker.) It continues through the pain of not seeing herself when she looked in the mirror, of not seeing herself when she didn’t, to the end, when she found a slight sense of acceptance, which I presume lasted until she died, in 2002.
In between, starting in the 1970s, Grealy underwent countless surgeries to “correct” her face and, later, to mitigate the effects of the surgeries themselves. The procedures were ghastly—skin grafts, bone grafts, grafts that swelled and then shrank away—leaving Grealy the same as or worse than when she started. People—boys, mostly—made fun of her along the way. Since she struggled to recognize her own image, she also struggled to maintain a sense of self.
So eventually she stopped looking. “I couldn’t make what I saw in the mirror correspond to the person I thought I was,” she writes. “It wasn’t only that I continued to feel ugly; I simply could not conceive of the image as belonging to me.”
Throughout my reading, I was afraid I’d recognize in Grealy’s disfigured face my own fear of becoming disfigured—of becoming monstrous. It’s wrong, I know and you know, to judge a person by her appearance; it’s wrong, too, to be repulsed by difference. Yet I found it hard not to be repulsed when reading this book—if not at Grealy’s descriptions of her face, then at my reactions to these descriptions.
But even more, the repulsion was a reaction to the inhospitable loneliness and separation that come with monstrosity. I feared the ensuing self-repulsion. Grealy makes this fear real: “When I tried to imagine being beautiful, I could only imagine living without the perpetual fear of being alone, without the great burden of isolation, which is what feeling ugly felt like.” Notice she doesn’t say “being ugly”: she figures ugliness as something that can be intuited or interpreted. I, meanwhile, struggled to avoid relating to that kind of isolation and self-hatred. I worried about the karmic consequences of comparing my experience to Grealy’s, thinking it inappropriate to relate to the monstrous when monsters were supposed to help me stay far away from my fears.
The scariest monsters, I would eventually realize, years after I first read the book, are the ones that won’t stay separate: the ones, like Grealy’s face, that insist on being seen and insist on their roots in me—because if monsters held my fears, then they came from me. And if they came from me, then I held something monstrous. I held that potential.
I worried about those karmic consequences in part because I first read the book soon after my own face had been broken, by a car and the ground, while I was riding my bike. For a while after the accident there was talk of surgery, but when one doctor said the surgery’s margin of error was about the same distance my cheekbone had been pushed inward, I decided it wasn’t worth it. I read Grealy’s story afraid of what would have happened if I’d needed surgery, afraid of what would have happened if it had failed.
So I told myself I was avoiding looking at Grealy’s face while reading the book, because I needed to be able to endure the unknown. I didn’t want the comfort of a spoiler. But as soon as I finished, I immediately went to the computer and looked, and it was relief I felt when I finally did: the “‘Oh! That’s not so bad at all’ feeling,” as one friend put it.
Still, I had given myself an uncomfortable choice: if I positioned Grealy and her disfigured face as the monstrosity, then I was doing something monstrous. But if I was doing something monstrous, there must be some cause—some monstrosity to which I was reacting. That cause—that monster—was Grealy. No matter what, I ended up calling her a monster. No matter what, I was a monster. Would it make it better if I at least admitted being stuck in that catch-22?
Grealy primes the reader for this reaction, providing examples of it in the way she saw, or refused to see, her own face. “My eyes had been secretly working against me, making up for the asymmetry as it gradually reappeared,” she writes after catching a glimpse of a reflection of her reflection in a dressing-room mirror. As with many of her surgeries, the most recent had seemed promising at first, only to let her face slowly regress to how it had been before, as the graft was reabsorbed. “This reversed image of myself was the true image, the way other people saw me,” she writes. “I felt like such a fool.”
By looking, I became one of those other people. But years later, when I re-read the book, I found it unspoiled. It was unspoiled because the subject of the book is, ultimately, not Grealy’s face but the world’s—and my—reaction to it. I thought of the opening of Alejandro Amenábar’s movie Tesis, where we watch a woman looking at a dead body just offscreen. Her reaction—her face—is more troubling than the body ever could be, because it only suggests, does not show. It leaves some uncertainty.
I had seen Grealy’s face on the internet at the end of that first reading, and again after the second. What I still couldn’t see, though, was the true extent of her isolation and loneliness. I wanted to understand because I thought it would make those feelings less scary, make them bearable. But I found, upon looking a second time, that her life still seemed unbearable. I didn’t want to admit how afraid I was of being ugly. I didn’t want to admit how quickly I would break down if something awful happened to my face. I could barely bear my own vanity, but then Grealy made me confront it. I saw, eventually, that within vanity is something more meaningful and more painful: loneliness. My horror, in the end, wasn’t at her story or even at her face. It was at how I reacted—that my reaction wasn’t aberrant, that it was so normal to act so monstrously. It was human. Grealy did more than turn readers into monsters: she turned monsters into people.
Rachel Z. Arndt
At twelve, you found out what you were, and it almost killed you. “Monstrous,” you called yourself. You were some kind of secret hybrid between supposedly opposite things; your body felt like a mistake, and the adults you trusted thought it would be—if it ever got out—an intolerable scandal. So you hid that aspect of yourself. You devoted yourself to a discipline that kept you in your head and out of your body. Instrumental music and math came easily, since both were beautiful practices in immaterial realms; dancing made no sense at all. Rules about social and emotional life, about hugs and kisses, dating and mating, seemed intuitive to other people but usually felt like nonsense to you.
And then you met other people much like you. Some of those people had gone to great lengths to stay hidden, wearing special thick clothes or disguising their natural voices; others (such as yourself) found that stealth wasn’t hard, as long as nobody saw you change. You learned a great deal by communicating remotely, over an intangible network, with people who could share your hidden side. Some were more alienated than you had ever been. Some were downright unpleasant. Once you met them, you realized you had work to do and that you’d have to reveal your whole self to do it: that aspect you had hidden for so long—that rare, hybrid, boundary-crossing, stigmatized element—had come to define your life, and made that life unexpectedly political.
I have, of course, just described growing up transgender in the 1990s and afterward, learning—with help from the internet—to understand “trans bodies, trans selves,” as the title of Laura Erickson-Schroth’s now well-known book has it. Except that I have really been describing Rachel Hartman’s 2012 young-adult fantasy novel Seraphina, which is set in a quasi-medieval court in a made-up country historically threatened by dragons, now threatened by bigots who hate dragons. The trans people in this analogy are the half dragons, among them our titular heroine, with her telltale patches of silver scales. Other half dragons have tails or scaly throats. Seraphina finds these others not through dial-up modems or World of Warcraft, but through shared visions of an imagined other world (same thing, really). Before those visions begin, some of the half dragons think they are the only ones, since stigma keeps them hidden: the dominant strands of the dominant religion, called Allsaints, say they should not exist.
Full dragons themselves are not trans: they’re more like Star Trek Vulcans, hyperlogical types who suppress, or ignore, or have trouble understanding, social cues and emotions. When they do feel emotions—as they do when they take human form—they practice a special kind of discipline to control them. (It’s worth noting here that closeted trans kids also have to hide many emotions, and that people who self-identify as autistic, or as having Asperger’s, are far more likely than others to be trans.) The human-dragon peace treaty, which requires that they take human form when in human lands, is new and controversial, supported (like real-life civil rights legislation) by a fragile consensus among elites. Some nobles, and many commoners, would prefer war.
The novel is not all about hiding scales and discovering kindred spirits, Seraphina is also music tutor of a bratty but well-meaning princess, and develops a crush on a brave older man. There’s court intrigue, military tactics, hot pursuit, and a Casablanca-like subplot. It may not read with the subtlety of Alice Munro, but we already have an Alice Munro; we—by which I mean adults like me, as well as teens like I was—desperately need more books like Seraphina, easily shared and delightfully plotted books in which we can also see ourselves.
If you have been wondering whether I’m overreading an all-purpose allegory about plucky outsiders, I know where you’re coming from, but you’re wrong. Jokes about trans people also apply to half dragons. (“‘They’re so mannish, these dragon females.’ I bristled at that, but why? They weren’t talking about me—except that, in some oblique way, they were.”) Sex ed for cisgender folks doesn’t quite work for trans teens, for the same reason it doesn’t work for dragons: “I do not feel love when I take my natural shape,” says a dragon, “but I remember it and want it back.”
About that charismatic older man, our heroine muses, “He thought I was normal, and that made me feel normal, and that was just cruel. I could have dispelled his illusions… by simply pulling up my sleeve. Why live in fear that he might find me disgusting someday, when I could make it happen right now?” Seraphina wonders, too, about her fertility (does anyone like her have kids? Can she have kids?); remembers “how it felt to believe myself utterly disgusting” and “how lying became an unbearable burden”; and concludes with a motto: “We were all monsters and bastards, and we were all beautiful.”
When I first read Seraphina I had real trouble imagining how non-trans readers would react, and whether they, too, would fall for Hartman’s world. Apparently a lot of them love it: the novel is a YA best seller, with a sequel, the wonderful Shadow Scale, published in 2015, and the brand-new Tess of the Road, set in the same lands. Walt Disney and Jared Leto have promised a film, too.
Thanks, Disney, but also no, thanks: this one’s ours. There are other fine books with dragons, of course, and there are now fine books with explicitly trans central characters, especially in YA—try books by April Daniels, Robin Talley, and Rachel Gold. But none of those books, so far as I know, have literal dragons, and none of the older dragons, or rather half dragons, read so consistently as a version—if just one version—of growing up trans. Seraphina muses, near the end of the book that bears her name: “Scattered and peculiar—some of us skeptical and bitter—we were a people.” I have no idea whether that’s what Hartman intended, but it’s something a lot of us still need to hear.